A little bit about Elan:
Elan M. Sudberg is CEO of Alkemist Labs, a passionately committed contract testing laboratory specializing in plant identity, potency, and purity testing to the Food & Beverage, Nutraceutical, and Cosmeceutical Industries. He holds a degree in chemistry from California State University Long Beach, and is on the American Herbal Products Association board of trustees.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Trackmind: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what your company does?
Elan: My name is Elan Sudberg, I’m the CEO of Alkemist Labs. Alkemist Labs is a nearly 26 year old family run and owned business that is an analytical laboratory. So essentially, we are a third party quality control service provider for the natural products, dietary supplement, beverage industry. Essentially, anyone who uses a plant or a fungus in their ingredients will send us those raw ingredients and or the finished products and they will have us test the materials, make sure they’re identified correctly, free of contaminants and have the potency that they’re seeking so that they can then confidently move forward in the supply chain process.
Trackmind: Awesome. What types of companies or industries do you specifically cater to?
Elan: So, we really focus on anyone who’s using a plant or fungus, medicinal plant or medicinal fungus. We work for some of the biggest companies whose names I can’t repeat, all the way to the smallest farmers with two people just basically growing crops, making sure they can sell them with a certificate of analysis from a reputable lab like ourselves to garner the confidence of the buyer all the way through the supply chain. In some cases, that CFA will travel all the way through to the final company, which might be one of the big box store shelves or large companies that play in this industry.
Trackmind: Awesome. And what types of tests do you offer at the moment?
Elan: Basically, we offer things to identify a plant or fungus. Very simple using your eyes and a small microscope all the way to high performance thin layer chromatography, which is basically separation of plant chemicals to create a fingerprint, compare the test sample to a control sample.
We also then quantify important chemicals in a plant. So, as an example, how strong your green tea product could be determined by how much caffeine is in there. And we can talk about this for days but caffeine is not the only thing that makes good green tea, good green tea. But just as an example, a marker to be measured, caffeine, as an example, you don’t want too much of it. You do need to know how much is in your product so that you aren’t dosing incorrectly.
And last but not least, making sure those materials are free of heavy metals, contaminations, lead, mercury, arsenic as well as illegal quantities of pesticides, which is fairly common in high throughput agriculture. And then microbial limits like yeast, mold, coliforms, things like that. Safety, the quality and just the pure identity of the materials is what we focus on.
Trackmind: Yeah. And as you’re speaking, I’m just now realizing that, wow, I need to watch what I eat, as well. Because I’m from India and, most of the time, everything is just straight from the farm and my mom does everything at home. So I never thought that there is going to be so much science that goes behind making sure that what you put in your body is not contaminated. That’s really good to know.
Elan: So many hands in the chain of custody of food and or supplements today that there’s a lot of opportunities for things to happen. And this is not me saying that it’s all bad. It’s actually mostly good but mistakes are made by accident or on purpose and labs like ourselves are there to make sure that our customers are not getting tricked or putting out products that are not safe and effective.
Trackmind: Yeah. So, [Alkemist Labs] offers a certificate of analysis. Obviously, for very logical reasons, it’s important for brands to have it but other than the obvious reason, are there any other reasons why it’s important for companies to have this certificate and what are the complications if they don’t have one?
Elan: Well, first, it’s federally required. So, it is law. A lot of folks have this misconception that the dietary supplement industry is not regulated and that is hardly the case. We are very, very regulated. The next misconception is that we’re not regulated like drugs. Well, that’s because we’re not drugs.
What if the [regulations] just disappeared? Which of our customers do we think would continue these? We have this amazing collection of great companies. So, my answer is most of them because not only is it required by law but it just makes good sense to stop at a four way stop sign, right? If there are no stop signs, you could blow through and be fine most of the time. But one of these days, you’ll meet the same person doing the same thing and collision, it could be catastrophic.
And so, similarly this [thought process] exists in ingredients. Back with your mother and your family, the farm. They knew what the materials looked like, the ingredients to whatever the food or medicines you guys use and they used their eyes, their nose and their sensories to identify these ingredients. Then they went forward. Well, that doesn’t exist these days because it’s coming on pallets of tons and container ships from all over the world and I can give you a rose and you could identify the rose but if I give you a powdered rose and tell you to identify the powdered rose, you might not be able to do it. And so, that’s the way the materials are traded in our industry.
So, it just makes good sense and it’s a sort of funny pun because it makes good cents from the dollar standpoint but also logical to check your ingredients before you proceed because you can’t just look at it with your eyes and do it. So, that’s really the reason why people are doing what they do. So those CFAs travel all the way through the chain of custody and garner confidence from vendor to vendor through each supply chain change of ownership.
Trackmind: And from a consumer perspective, we are seeing a lot of stuff happening in the world, right? We’re seeing a lot of impact that climate change is having on farming and a lot of the sources of most of these ingredients. Do you think consumers are today looking for transparency from these brands?
Elan: I don’t think they know that they’re looking for it. When you buy a car, you might do some research online about the consumer reports and if you buy even a microwave, you might do that. You don’t worry about the carrot you’re buying at the store or the lettuce because you can see it, look at it and it looks like a carrot. I think there’s this misconception that dietary supplements are not regulated when, in fact, they are. And there’s a really huge opportunity for our industry to do a better job at sharing the fact that we do spend tens or hundreds of millions a year on quality. I’m a marketing guy with a chemistry degree. I like to think of it as a marketing launch that you basically never launched the marketing campaign. You spent all this money on tens or hundreds in some cases but you never actually launched it.
It’s basically the secret sauce behind our industry. And the challenge is we’re in dietary supplements. We’re not drugs. We can’t say our products actually do treat, prevent, cure, when in fact, we all know why we’re here–trying to basically modulate health. It’s a supplement to a good diet is really what it means. And so, it makes sense to make sure you have the quality. Consumers, when they have access to a brand that does show the quality, they latch onto it. Even if they don’t fully understand the data behind the share, the fact that at that level of transparency is accessible increases sales. And there’s brands in our industry who have been doing this for a little while and the ones who are sharing that to that magnitude are the ones who are legacy brands these days and the other ones are fly by night.
Trackmind: Okay, awesome. Yeah. And so, in terms of the people that your company serves, at what stage of their business do they need to get these certifications or these tests done and how often do they need to get it? Is it just a one time thing?
Elan: Yeah. There’s no hard, fast rules about how often you have to test. But generally, if it changes hands, you’re not supposed to sell your chamomile with a report from some lab without accepting it and testing it again on your own because, basically, it’s just a piece of paper of trust.
But basically, at any change of hands, a material really should be tested and verified that it has not been compromised in any way. Again, it’s not all malicious folks out there. Mistakes happen. Powders are tricky. Contaminations happen. And to make sure that that is mitigated by a good routine of testing is really important. And as I mentioned, we work with the folks that are growing the materials from the farms all the way to the products that’s on big box store shelves and there’s liability for every one of those entities along the chain. And so, it makes sense for their stance to make sure that they are selling because it’s very rare that a company actually grows it and actually makes and bottles a product. It usually has at least three or four companies throughout the process doing the work together.
Part II coming soon.
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